Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

M Blackman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

On Silence and Art (1 of a 3 part blog)

Last week I signed a contract of silence with the artist Robert Sloon at his exhibition at the Whatiftheworld Gallery. It was a performance piece, which involved sitting on a chair, drinking an entire bottle of champagne, but with the stipulation that I could not communicate with anyone. The work was linked to James Bond and notions of self-alienation. I decided to do it for two reasons. One was that it was a way of getting a free bottle of champagne. The other was that it tied in with an idea that I have been interested in for a while, that is to say the value of silence.

I have always found it difficult keeping my mouth shut. I have enraged and bored many people with my incessant chatter over the years. And I did find the silence difficult. My position was made harder by the fact that the quick wit of Ed Young saw the paradoxical element to the contract and poured himself a glass of the champagne. It put me in a contractual predicament; I would break it both if I communicate with him and if I did not drink the entire bottle of champagne myself. But such is the nature of the Young.

My interests in silence are of a slightly different nature to Robert Sloon’s, and yet, in some regards, there is a connection. Mine are linked to Albert Camus’ belief in its moral value. Although it could be said that Camus’ beliefs may, to a degree, have been informed by a desire to alienate himself from certain elements of society and to some of the people close to him.

Camus stated that: ‘a man is more a man for the things he doesn’t say than for the things that he does’. These days silence is a value not much admired having been discredited over the last 200 odd years, which has seen the French Revolution, Marx, Freud and the reemergence of religious fundamentalism in politics. In a world that values such things as psychology (and its popular derivative), political commitment and freedom of speech, silence is seen as unhelpful, destructive and in many cases as morally abhorrent. Yet silence was in the past considered of moral and social worth. The ‘vow of silence’ and the British ‘stiff upper lip’ were considered both noble and of spiritual value.

Camus’ silence with regards to the war in Algeria was one of the reasons why he was pilloried by both the right and left wing. He proffered two statements to the zealots who wanted him to hand them the blade with which they could guillotine him. The first was that his mother’s life was prior to political commitment. In the second he state that silence is not necessarily a negative response. These two statements were largely dismissed, particularly by the left wing, as either expressions of self-serving political hypocrisy or nonsensical and rationally absurd.

The modern world seems to me to be divided into two camps; one of religious commitment while the other extols rationalism and sees it as the ultimate solution to all human problems. To both of these groups, silence is seen as an abdication of responsibility. And it seems true to me that one can only understand silence as valuable if one is neither a religious fundamentalist nor a fundamental rationalist.

Karl Popper intimated, in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, that rationalism has its limits. He argued that Heraclitus’ statement that ‘everything is flux’ means that all knowledge is something of the past and not of the present and future. Camus attacked the limits of rationalism by going one step further when he suggested that language does not necessarily relate to the world as we encounter it, nor to the feelings that well in our hearts.

Meursault is the quintessential conveyor of this dilemma. He cannot express the feelings he has towards mother’s death. In his trial he tries to explain to the court that the proceedings are not a true representation of what happened on the beach when he shot the Arab. He is struck silent by the remembrance of the inexplicable flux of those moments. The only thing he knows was that it had something to do with the intensity of the sun.

That is essentially the problem with utterances, that, far from conveying truth, they can often restrict and twist it. If Meursault had said it was an act of self-defence he would speak of something that all humans would be prepared to accept as the truth. But for him it was more than self-defence. There was something in the heat of the sun-scorched beach that was part of his act, something that was utterly inexplicable, yet somehow knowable. Meursault’s silence is one of the great artistic expressions of a man’s attempt to pursuit the truth. Of course it is a tragedy. All failures to express what lies in our hearts is a tragedy, but at the very least it is a moral tragedy that defies mendacity; the mendacity that many rationalist who, sometimes for the best of reasons, involve themselves in while attempting to search for the truth.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 8th, 2009 @10:35 #
     
    Top

    Tsk, Matthew, shouldn't you just have posted a photograph of yourself drinking champagne?

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    July 8th, 2009 @10:44 #
     
    Top

    @Lauren. Hahahahaha! Sorry Mr Blackman, i think Lauren is 100% right.

    Bottom
  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 8th, 2009 @10:56 #
     
    Top

    Welcome back, Matthew. Good, thoughtful post - I look forward to seeing II and III.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 8th, 2009 @10:57 #
     
    Top

    good one!

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 8th, 2009 @13:33 #
     
    Top

    Hello Matthew, lovely to see you here. Are you allowed to read while maintaining silence and sipping champagne? In which case, the perfect book would be Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, "a meditation on the meaning of silence", exquisitely and economically written. You'd love it. http://books.google.co.za/books?id=V-N71VYOD3wC&dq=inauthor:Patrick+inauthor:Leigh+inauthor:Fermor

    Or, if you want to fly the SA flag, how about Michael Green's For the Sake of Silence http://www.english.ukzn.ac.za/MichaelGreenonline_files/page0002.htm

    And I want to know what sort of champagne you were obliged to drink.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    July 8th, 2009 @15:22 #
     
    Top

    Too much silence is exhausting. But so is too much chatter, though I never had you down as an excessive chatterer Matthew, no Good Lord, the very opposite. Getting it wrong or too harsh, well, at least has some courage in it, silence in some cases can be spineless; it comes in so many types, silence ... the past week has provided me with an exquisite opportunity to experience the tragedy of a very particular type of silence and in my irrational head, I find too much silence is abysmal and inhuman; in fact, it's almost cruel. Still it has its benefits, and worse than the spineless silent man is probably the man who speaks when all another wants is silence, that is cruel too. Both selfish, but of course.... attempting to get to grips with the great tonic silence, I once had to be quiet for three weeks in a temple in Thailand, Noble Silence it was called, it made me very thirsty and I hankered terribly for mangoes, so good you had champagne. The host, though, that's a bit of using Bond's name in vain, what, notions of self-alienation? Was James self-alienated? I always found him perfectly elegant...he's gone to the dogs a bit lately. Probably this all counts as chattering. I'm tired of silence, that's why.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://artheat.net" rel="nofollow">Robert Sloon</a>
    Robert Sloon
    July 8th, 2009 @23:01 #
     
    Top

    @Lauren. There is a picture on the exhibitions website which you can see here http://syndrome.yolasite.com/inaglassverydarkly.php

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 9th, 2009 @09:41 #
     
    Top

    Still can't see what sort of champagne it is. And are you allowed to read the Fleming first edition? Am intrigued.

    Bottom
  • <a href="http://artheat.net" rel="nofollow">Robert Sloon</a>
    Robert Sloon
    July 9th, 2009 @10:51 #
     
    Top

    @Helen. It was a Philip De Champaigne, an unremarkable French champagne, named after a rather more unremarkable 17C painter. The contract didn't specify if he was allowed to read the Fleming first edition, but being a good bibliophile, I assume, he decided to not damage it's immaculate condition. Stupidly, because 1st Editions of the Man With The Golden Gun aren't particularly valuable!

    Bottom

Please register or log in to comment

» View comments as a forum thread and add tags in BOOK Chat